City’s new bike plan stirs questions, cautious optimism

Published on September 7, 2011
Cyclist and graduate student of anthropology Alanna Felt is studying the new St. John’s bike plan and the St. John’s cycling community. — Photo by Justin brake/Special to The Telegram

It’s been four years since the prospect of turning St. John’s into a more transport-egalitarian city became a good possibility. Now, after more than a year-long delay involving conflicting opinions of what a local bike plan would look like, the City of St. John’s is preparing to introduce Phase 1 of its Cycling Master Plan later this month.

The first part of the 20-year master plan’s three-phase implementation strategy features a 41-kilometre network of bike lanes, sharrows, off-road trails and signage, each designed with the goal of making transportation safer, more efficient and beneficial for road users.

City council adopted the plan in 2009 and aimed to implement Phase 1 last summer but faced a dilemma when the two consulting firms it hired — one to design the plan and one to implement it — disagreed on the plan’s routing.

The ensuing modifications resulted in a significant downsizing of the original proposal, especially in the downtown area, and now include smaller, isolated networks of lanes, sharrows, trails or signage.

“The bike route’s (purpose) is to try and create a citywide network which will take people from major residential areas to places like the downtown, the major malls, Stavanger Dr., and Prince Philip Dr., particularly because there are huge education and employment facilities there,” St. John’s deputy mayor and cycling plan proponent Shannie Duff said

“One of the first things was to look at our city from a geographical perspective and say ‘What are the best routes? Where do people work or go to educational or recreational facilities, and what are the best ways to get them there safely?’”

While upgrades to the city’s busiest downtown network of cycling routes is minimal, bike lanes have been added to select roads in Airport Heights and the city’s west end and extensive work has been done to routes along Columbus Drive and the Virginia River Trail.

Phase 1 of the plan cost the city, province and federal government $257,000, Duff said, with Phase 2 expected weigh in at $728,000. Pending future financial support from the federal and provincial governments through the Green Fund, the entire 20-year plan will cost upward of $7 Million, a price tag that includes the fine-tuning of cycling routes during the regular maintenance — widening lanes during re-paving, for instance — of implicated roads.

Early response to Phase 1, which the city will officially launch later this month with a public relations and education campaign, is generally positive, although many urban cyclists are cautiously optimistic about grand or immediate changes in road sharing.

“Most drivers aren’t completely comfortable with bikes on the road and a lot of them don’t know what to do or aren’t quite sure how to handle them,” says Adrian House, a member of community bicycle collective Ordinary Spokes and an organizer of the local Critical Mass bike ride, a monthly community action held in 300 cities worldwide.

“You still get beeped at fairly regularly, so I think there’s some kind of disconnect between the presence of cyclists and the behaviour of a lot of drivers.”

House said he has been biking around the city for about 15 years and, even though he obeys the rules of the road, he has experienced several close calls with motor vehicles.

“Several times I’ve been dangerously cut off by cars,” he said. “What drivers need to realize is that, for example, if a lane’s narrow and (there’s) a cyclist in the right lane next to you, don’t squeeze by the cyclist. You’ll almost hit them and possibly make them lose control. Instead, just slow down and wait for there to be a gap in the left-hand lane, then you can pull over more to give the cyclist space.”

The way to safer road use, House said, is through education and advocacy.

“Bicycles have a legal right to share the road with cars and I don’t think the majority of drivers know that.”

On the education front Duff said the city’s department of recreation has, for the first time and in conjunction with Bicycle Newfoundland and Labrador (BNL), been offering the Canadian Cycling Association-developed CAN-BIKE program at the H.G.R. Mews Community Centre.

“We will now have (the course) as a regular part of our recreation department. We’ve been running them all summer,” Duff explained. “Right now they’re targeted at young and new cyclists, people that have never cycled, or older people perhaps who would be scared.

“There’s two sides to training,” she said. “One is the cyclists, who have to know what signals to give and what the protocols are, and then the drivers, to make them more conscious of the fact that there will be more cyclists.”

Duff says the bike plan launch will feature television and radio ads dealing with cycling protocol and safety matters, and a new website that will go live the day of the launch.

“You can only make information accessible, you can’t impose it,” she says. “But the two things we will do is try to educate and make the rules and the instructions available.”

Const. Kevin Foley, an RNC community services officer and member of the city’s Cycling Master Plan Committee, said the RNC has no plans to change its approach in enforcing the rules of the road.

“When we see an infraction that’s enforceable we’ll certainly take action as required.

“Generally, I think education is the key. We’ve trained two of our officers to be CAN-BIKE instructors and we’re assisting them with their education program.”

The bike lanes and sharrows are sure to become variables in shifting perceptions of road usage.

Alanna Felt, a graduate student of anthropology at Memorial University who is undertaking a study of the bike plan and the St. John’s cycling community, believes misconceptions are at the heart of recent debates surrounding the bike plan which have exacerbated an apparent motorist-cyclist divide.

Last summer a resident of Frecker Drive initiated a petition to oppose the city’s plans to install bike lanes on his street. The lanes, he and others feared, would impede on-street parking for residents and visitors.

“The media really hopped on this ... when people on Frecker Drive were really upset about having a third parking space taken away on one side of the road there,” Felt said.

“It was framed by the media (in a way) that these people who were opposed to the cycling lanes were opposed to cyclists ... or the cycling plan altogether. If you were to ask them individually they probably wouldn’t say that. It’s hard for somebody to come out and say, ‘I hate the idea of cyclists being on the road’ or ‘I hate the idea of a cycling plan.’

“They were opposed to aspects of the cycling plan ... and they were OK with the cycling plan — this is my impression of it anyway — insofar as it didn’t affect their personal lives,” she continues. “So it was a little bit of a not-in-my-own-backyard kind of thing.”

Felt advocates for a more comprehensive understanding of issues around road use and the transition to a more bike-friendly city to ease the perceived divide between motorists and cyclists.

She points out, however, regardless of who is at fault in any given accident situation, cyclists are inherently more at risk.

“There are motorists sympathetic to cyclists, certainly, and to the cycling plan as well, even though it’s probably riddled with inconveniences and and all that,” Felt said.

“Just as there are motorists who do stupid things on the road, there are cyclists who do stupid things on the road, too, and ... no matter who’s doing the stupid thing, the cyclist is always going to lose, just about, in terms of safety.”

Glen Smith, acting executive director for BNL, said he has been commuting to work on a bike for four years and recently tested the new bike lane on Prince Philip Drive.

“That’s probably one of the most dangerous roads to ride on, before that lane was put in,” he says.

“You could go in on the sidewalk, which a lot of bikers did, but you’re not supposed to. But I’m guilty of doing it because you just can’t get out in four lanes of traffic when the cars are basically inches from the curb. There’s no shoulder at all on that road.”

Smith says the sharrows, which amount to painted shared-lane markings along the sides of many St. John’s roads, are likely to confuse some cyclists and many motorists at first, but says a comprehensive education strategy should clear up any uncertainties.

“It might be a little confusing there now, but I’d rather the confusion and have people wondering what it is, and at least drawing their attention to it, than disregarding it entirely,” he says.

“Bikers can’t become complacent and think just because they’re in a lane that’s got a marking on the road that they’re going to be safe. There’s always going to be cars that don’t know what the markings are for or don’t see them for whatever reason, or worse again, know what they’re for but disregard them. You still have to let common sense prevail and don’t take for granted that our roads are going to be safe, but it certainly helps the cause.”

A meeting at city hall is scheduled today to determine the specifics of the bike plan’s official launch, but city spokeswoman Jennifer Mills says it’s “99 per cent” likely it will go ahead Sept. 20 at a local school.

For more information on the City of St. John’s Cycling Master Plan visit www.stjohns.ca/cityservices/traffic/cyclingplan.jsp.